D. W. Griffith

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(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

D. W. Griffith 1875-1948

(Full name David Wark Griffith) American filmmaker.

As the first filmmaker to exploit the potential of film editing to convey the impression of simultaneous action, and for his promotion of a style of acting and innovative uses of the camera that suited the representation of character psychology, Griffith is generally acknowledged by scholars and critics as the most influential figure in film history. Exemplified in his epic silent movies The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916), his techniques were copied and refined by the majority of filmmakers in the United States and Europe, and were closely studied by Sergei Eisenstein, Vsevolod Pudovkin, and other directors in pre- and post-revolutionary Russia. Most critics note, however, that as a storyteller Griffith was prone to bombastic thematic pretension, sentimentality, and was capable of only pedestrian insight. Moreover, The Birth of a Nation, which is often considered the apotheosis of his technical achievement, can no longer be shown outside of academic settings because it is blatantly racist, depicting blacks as either buffoons or savages and the Ku Klux Klan as heroes. For these reasons, modern critical attention tends to focus on two areas of his career: the early, formative period from 1908 through 1913 when he made over 480 short films for the Biograph Company; and the later phase that included important yet less well-known works such as Broken Blossoms (1919), Way Down East (1920), and Isn't Life Wonderful (1924).

Biographical Information

Griffith was born in Oldham County, Kentucky, to parents whose families had been in the United States since the revolutionary period. His father, Jacob, was a doctor who participated in the California Gold Rush, was a member of the Kentucky legislature, and, prior to the Civil War—in which he served as an officer in the Confederate cavalry—had been a prosperous slave owner with a large plantation. With the family's fortunes greatly diminished after the war, Griffith was born into impoverished circumstances. His father died in 1882 and his mother moved the family to Louisville where she ran a boarding house. Griffith, who never finished high school because of his obligation to help support the family, had decided early in life to be a writer; his temperament and personality, however, led him to pursue the more social and flamboyant art of stage acting. He joined a travelling theatrical company in 1895, and for the following ten years made a meager living acting and holding odd jobs. In 1906 he married his first wife, the actress Linda Arvidson, who later appeared in many of his films. After the marginal success in Washington, D. C. and Baltimore of a play he wrote called A Fool and a Girl (1907), Griffith moved to New York City to resume acting. There he began selling story ideas to various motion picture companies—which at the time were located primarily in that city—and in 1908 he was hired by the Edison Company to act in two films, Cupid's Pranks and Rescued from an Eagle's Nest; the latter was directed by Edwin S. Porter, director of two much-studied films, Life of an American Fireman (1902-1903) and The Great Train Robbery (1903). He was then hired by the Biograph Company as a writer and actor. He appeared in at least twenty films before June, 1908, when he was given the opportunity to direct a film, The Adventures of Dollie. He became Biograph's principal director, and in the next five years he made over 480 short, very popular films. In this time, because of the success of his work, Griffith gained increasing control over the major aspects of film production at Biograph, from writing, casting, and editing to promotion. In 1913, when the owners of Biograph rejected his demands to make longer, more elaborate, and thus more expensive films, Griffith left the company, taking with him his cameraman, G. W. "Billy" Bitzer, and several of his favorite actors, including Lillian and Dorothy Gish, Robert Harron, and Henry...

(The entire section is 2,011 words.)